History of Bread and Puppet Theatre
The 1960s saw a new development in experimental theatre: theatre of protest. Specific theatre groups included The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Théâtre de la Commune in Paris, El Teatro Campesino, started by Luis Valdez, and, the focus of this paper, Bread and Puppet Theatre, started by Peter Schumann. “These theatres explored the same themes as the experimental theatres, but their expressed aim was to incite social change…they reacted against the trends of society. Some sought to create a sense of unity within the audience to combat the dehumanization of life, while others deliberately provoked the audience to overcome public apathy and create active response” (Watson & McKernie 453).
Bread and Puppet Theatre, one of the oldest non-profit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the United States, tends more towards the uniting of the audience against various political and social issues. The Theatre was found in the early 1960s on New York’s Lower East Side by Peter Schumann, first concerning itself with “rent, rats and police” (Scenes of Vermont 2). Peter Schumann was “a German born dancer, musician, and sculptor who found in puppet theatre a way of blending all this arts into a form uniquely his own” (Kennedy 1). Bread and Puppet Theatre started small, performing in the streets, at outdoor shows, taking part in parades.
In 1968, Christian Dupavillon invited the company to the World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France. The show was so successful in Europe, that the troupe enjoyed a period of semi-rock stardom, which resulted in several European tours. This was quite a difference from the non-commercial, shoe-string budget that Bread and Puppet was used to (Kennedy 2).
In 1970, Schumann, his wife and partner, Elka, and his family left New York to become the theatre in residence at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. “Goddard became the a center of 1960s counterculture, a community of artisans, musicians, activists, performers, entrepreneurs, and communes who fed each other the vision of an alternative way of life at some distance from the economics and mass culture of American caplitalism” (Bell 63). This is where the Domestic Resurrection Circus would be born, becoming “an annual event that would eventually become one of the most extraordinary cultural happenings of our time” (Kennedy 2).
In 1974, Bread and Puppet Theatre moved to their current home, a farm in Glover, Vermont. Among the many acres of rolling hills and flat grassland stands an old barn which houses the Bread and Puppet Theatre museum of puppets, ranging from puppets designed to fit on the finger tip to puppets that have heads eight feet high.
“Bread and Puppet Theatre performs political theatre, celebrating humble, proletarian lives and criticizing various nefarious institutions—the government, the military, banks, McDonalds—that are seen as enslaving the world’s cheerful peasants” (Mitchell 1). Most of the shows done by the Bread and Puppet Theatre are based on the work of Berthold Brecht. “Brecht believed in drama as a tool of social change” (Scenes of Vermont 2) so it is no wonder that Bread and Puppet Theatre has adopted and adapted much of his material for their shows.
The Domestic Resurrection Circus and Pageant has become “…an annual pilgrimage for some” (Scenes of Vermont 1). Between 20,000 and 40,000 people travel to Glover, Vermont each year for the Circus, even though the exact dates are never advertised in advance due to possibly unmanageable crowds. The mix of people is always eccentric as well: “The Sixties generation is always well represented, arriving in Ford Explorers, Nissan Pathfinders and even the occasional BMW. The less well-off arrive in rusting Subarus and even old Beetles. You can find professional people such a lawyers and doctors amongst this group…Young people are here, too. Both sexes dress in long pants and skirts. They sport strange hats and wear tye-dye shirts” (Scenes of Vermont 1).
Due to drawing such a large crowd, problems occurred and preventative measures had to be taken. A logistics committee with close ties to the community was formed to work annually on the event. They figured out their own garbage recycling system, which worked well. Parking problems were taken care of by neighboring farmers, who, first by favor and then as a lucrative business investment, allowed empty fields to be used for visiting audience members (Bell 67).
Food also became a problem. The sourdough rye bread wasn’t enough to feed everyone. The problem was first solved by attending farmers contributing to a free corn and potato roast, but that became too much of a burden. After several years of exploring logistic options, vendors successfully set up on the campgrounds, providing food for audience members (Bell 68).
Finally, Bread and Puppet Theatre had to deal with more sensitive issues, such as drugs, alcohol and dogs. The dog issues was easy to deal with, the drug and alcohol issue couldn’t resolve itself, as it was a part of the culture, but it was against the anti-authoritarian attitude of Bread and Puppet to regulate such things. In the summer of 1997, the committee asked theatre-goers to refrain from bringing such elements to the Circus ground, which succeeded in solving the problem (Bell 68).
Even though these problems were solved, Bread and Puppet Theatre had its final Domestic Resurrection Circus and Pageant in the summer of 1998. This year, the themes of the pageant “…touched upon…the Spanish-American War, the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the controversy over Vermont’s Act 60, and criticism of New York mayor Rudy Guiliani for his law and order politics” (Scenes of Vermont 2). In addition to this, there was a performance of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera (called Penny Opera by Bread and Puppet.)
Due to the sweltering heat of this weekend in Vermont, a few people were rushed to the hospital to be treated for heatstroke; however, most of the dozen people taken to the hospital by ambulance crews were treated for drug overdose. Schumann was angered at the people who still brought dogs and drugs to the event, and probably incensed even more by the killing of a man in a nearby campground. Schumann is reported to having said this to the crowd that gather on August 19th, 1998:
I want to thank all out friends and neighbors for years
of help and very rewarding collaborations, and announce
publicly that this was out last Domestic Resurrection
Circus. IT was our twenty-seventh circus; three on Cate
Farm in Plainfield, one in Aubersville, France, and
twenty-three here in Golver. As we learned how to do
these big spectacles and got better at it, the spectator
crowd grew and finally out grew our capacities.
The culmination of troubles was the death of Michael
Sarazin on August 8, which marks the continuation of
the event impossible. To our neighbors who know the
Circus only from the traffic jams on the extended weekends,
we apologize for the inconvenience. To our friends and
guests we want to say: We are not going away, we [sic]
will do other smaller forms of theatre during the summer
months here on the Bread and Puppet Farm.
Thank you all (Scenes of Vermont 1)
Schumann has lived up to his promise. The Bread and Puppet Theatre still performs smaller shows at its farm, most recently, Penny Opera and The Insurrection Mass with Funeral Marches for Rotten Ideas. Bread and Puppet is still non-profit and non-commercial, attracting only those who seek out their message.
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